Bringing Down the Brotherhood
A wide red line runs across the floor of the visiting room like a clown's grin, separating the guard post and the civilian exit from the rest of the place. Prisoners are forbidden to cross that line.
Joseph Principe stays way, way clear of the line. The last thing he needs, today or any of the other days he has to spend behind bars, is trouble.
Maybe it's the olive-green uniform, maybe it's the way he stands for a frisk, but there is little to distinguish Principe from the other convicts in this medium-security lockup on Colorado's high plains. Only this: When the female guard who pats him down tells him to tuck in his shirt, he doesn't give her attitude -- just a slight smile.
"Is this new?" he asks.
She shakes her head slowly. He turns away from her, for modesty's sake, and tucks. The whole exchange takes only a few seconds, but it's rich in ritual. Here are the rules, ancient and implacable, thus it has always been and always shall be... and over here is Joe Principe, a man in a unique position to understand both the absurdity and the necessity of what is being asked of him.
Until a few years ago, Principe was the one doing the frisking and making inmates toe the line. He was a correctional officer at the highest-security prison in the country, the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum. Better known as ADX, the federal pen outside of Florence is home to many of the nation's most dangerous terrorists, gang leaders and murderers, and Principe was their keeper. But then the world turned upside down, and he found himself on the wrong side of the bars.
Disgraced cops who go to prison usually end up in some form of protective custody -- "checking in," convicts call it. But that's not Principe's way. He walks the yard with the rest of the cons, takes his meals with them. Checking in is for rats, and Principe is no rat. His refusal to snitch is a point of pride with him. Depending on how you look at it, it's the one thing that has kept him alive -- or the thing that got him in trouble in the first place.
News travels fast in prison, rumors even faster. Everybody knows a little bit about who Principe is and what he once did. "Usually all they hear is that this guy used to be a fed," he says. "It gets passed around. So I put it out there: 'You got any questions? Bring them to me. I'll tell you what's up.' But I don't feel comfortable telling them the whole story."
The whole story, as Principe tells it, is about snitches and the games they play. One day you're a trusted employee of the United States Bureau of Prisons. Then the snitches go to work, and you're a pariah. Before you know it, you're a named defendant in the biggest, hairiest high-stakes racketeering case the federal government has ever prosecuted. That's your name on the 110-page indictment, linked to a bunch of hard-core killers, dope dealers and degenerates -- lifers and career criminals with nicknames such as The Baron, The Hulk, Blinky, McKool, Tank, Turtle, Youngster and Lucifer.
Unveiled in 2002 by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles, the sprawling indictment is the culmination of years of effort by federal and state agencies to smash the Aryan Brotherhood, the most notorious of all prison gangs. The case is stunning in scope, targeting forty defendants -- virtually the entire upper management of the AB, as well as various "associates," wannabes and stooges -- for their alleged roles in a criminal enterprise stretching over decades. It encompasses sixteen murders, dating back to the 1979 near-beheading of an inmate by AB leader Barry "The Baron" Mills, and sixteen other plotted or attempted murders; numerous heroin deals, in and outside of prison; and other acts of mayhem intended to enforce the gang's will on the toughest prisons in the California and federal systems.
The case has been long in coming -- in part, prison officials say, because the fear created by the AB is so pervasive. Although bona fide members make up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal prison population, the AB has been blamed for up to 25 percent of the killings in federal pens. It's also said to be responsible for at least six inmate murders at California's Pelican Bay State Prison. Allied with the Mexican Mafia and no longer a white-supremacist organization, the group has zero tolerance for informants, rival drug, gambling or pimping operations, or pain-in-the-ass innocent bystanders. AB loyalists have executed their own brethren for homosexual indiscretions. Outsiders desperate to impress the gang have been known to slaughter suspected snitches in hopes of an invitation to join.
In one infamous 24-hour period in 1983, two AB lifers escaped their handcuffs and killed two guards in the most secure unit of the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. They did it, most chroniclers of the event agree, for sport as much as spite, simply because they could -- spurring the outcry for a federal supermax that eventually led to the construction of ADX, the "Alcatraz of the Rockies." Yet despite being housed in the bowels of ADX, Mills and Tyler Davis "The Hulk" Bingham have allegedly continued to direct AB activities in other prisons, including the killing of black inmates in Illinois and Pennsylvania during a racially charged turf war in the late 1990s.
In recent months, nearly half the defendants in the racketeering case, many of whom are already serving long sentences for other crimes, have accepted plea deals --including Principe. All of the 21 who remain are eligible for the death penalty. Although the government has not yet declared in which instances it will seek death, the group is likely to include Mills and Bingham, who are expected to go to trial next year. The only way to deal with the AB, the feds have decided, is to do what Mills tried to do to an inmate named John Marzloff back in '79: cut off its head.
But prison gangs are multi-headed beasts, and the feds have made some questionable deals in their effort to crush the AB. Much of the information and several key witnesses behind the racketeering case can be traced to a single cellblock at ADX known as H Unit, a secret intelligence unit where six top defectors from the gang were assembled and debriefed. The existence of the operation was first disclosed in Westword five years ago, when a former resident of H Unit charged that the group's members conned their handlers, smuggled out sensitive documents and embellished their stories in order to obtain special privileges and transfers to less austere prisons ("A Broken Code," July 27, 2000).
Other informants have since come forward with their own tales about H Unit, and attorneys for the death-eligible defendants are challenging the credibility of the state's top snitches. They contend that the defectors tailored their testimony to suit the government and that the whole debriefing process was fatally flawed.
"I think this case started with H Unit," says Dean Steward, Mills's attorney. "All of these guys were looking to find a way out of ADX. They had other agendas, but that was their top priority -- getting out of there."
The murky case against Principe relied almost entirely on the snitches in H Unit. And if that case is any indication of the type of evidence the government hopes to present against Mills and the other AB leaders, putting them on death row may be harder than it sounds.
"There was no honor in my case, just a lot of lying and exaggerating," Principe says. "Add to that the dirty tricks they used on me -- the dungeon housing, the delays, the manipulation of discovery. The court process has become a playground for egocentricity and snitch sniping. It's a disgrace to justice."
Nobody sets out in life with a gnawing ambition to spend time in prison. Inmates don't plan on ending up there, and neither do staff. Correctional officers often come to their profession down a winding path that starts out with a hankering for the military or law enforcement, or possibly just for a uniform and the authority that goes with it.
For Joe Principe, the calling had nothing to do with uniforms or the scent of danger; it was all about a regular paycheck and good benefits and a pension. After trying on all sorts of jobs and lives, he found himself turning thirty, ready to settle down and raise a family. Corrections looked like his ticket to suburbia, a way of repudiating what had gone before.
"I've mellowed out quite a bit," he says, "but I used to have quite an itch to scratch."
Born and raised in the Bronx, Principe reinvented himself throughout his youth. He joined the Army right out of high school, went airborne with the First Ranger Battalion, jumped out of airplanes. Then he decided to chuck the Army and major in philosophy at Manhattan College. Then there was the whole '80s greed-is-good thing; he was the guy up in the booth at the American Stock Exchange, frantically flashing hand signals to the options traders on the floor. The crash of '87 put an end to that one.
After that, there was a stream of other jobs, including a stint as a private investigator, working insurance and marital surveillance cases all over New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Fun -- hell, yes, but his fiancée wanted him to find something more stable, and the Bureau of Prisons was hiring. "I never thought of it as a fighting-crime thing," he says. "It was a job I could handle, I guess, that I didn't think would bother me too much."
Principe started at USP Lewisburg in central Pennsylvania in 1991. The hours were regular, the camaraderie among staff strong. Three years later, the bureau opened its new supermax in Florence. Rated highly in his work at Lewisburg, Principe decided to put in for a transfer.
ADX was a new kind of prison, designed to house the system's high-risk inmates in isolation 22 hours a day. The place was a maze of control rooms, double doors and cameras. When prisoners were taken out of their cells -- to the recreation cages in the yard, for example, or to phone their lawyers -- they were heavily shackled and escorted by three guards. For Principe, accustomed to the noise and action of Lewisburg, working inside ADX was like taking a moonwalk.
"It was kind of scary quiet," he says. "All the doors and grills, and it takes you forever to walk from one side to the other. It was supposed to be safer, but things can always happen. Those bars, they're an illusion. I used to tell the young officers, ŒMake believe they're not there. Because when you start depending on them, you're going to start screwing up.'"
Crazies who'd assaulted staff at other prisons often wound up at ADX. Sure, they were behind double doors, but that didn't make them any less crazy -- quite the opposite. Now they had all day to try to figure out how they were going to nail you with one of their shit-piss cocktails. One inmate was known for stripping and oiling his body for the anticipated tussles with the extraction team; you could put him in a four-point restraint on his bed, and he'd still bite off a chunk of his shoulder and spit it at you. Just how were you supposed to "manage" wack jobs like that?
The place was different, all right. With all the cameras and rules, Principe couldn't shake the feeling that the staff was under the microscope just as much as the cons were. Lewisburg had been "old-school"; guards had a fair amount of discretion about how they dealt with inmates in certain situations, as long as they didn't violate security or common sense. But ADX was a high-tech, button-down, by-the-book tomb, and its atmosphere became even more stifling to Principe after the arrival of Michael Pugh, its fourth warden in five years of operation.
Pugh was a veteran administrator who made no secret of his belief that he had some "dirty" staffers at ADX, people who were being co-opted, blackmailed or paid by prison-gang leaders to look the other way. Principe was a union steward who saw merit in reaching an accommodation with inmates to make life easier all around.
"I did little things," Principe says. "If a guy needs some soap or toothpaste, I never had a problem helping him out with that. There are officers who do it, and there are officers who don't. But I guess that made me appear vulnerable or something.
"The way I look at it, they're already locked up. What are you going to do? If you make them miserable, they make you miserable. So there were little things, minor rules -- like this issue of passing, okay? Bureau policy says you don't pass anything from one inmate to the next. At Lewisburg, they didn't trip on little things like that. They're just happy if nobody dies on shift."
Principe knew who Mills and Bingham were. There was a notebook full of inmates' pictures that guards were supposed to inspect on a regular basis, listing gang affiliations, escape attempts, history of violence -- the problem prisoners' whole claim to fame. But he says he didn't extend any special courtesies to Aryan Brotherhood inmates, and he scarcely paid any attention to the notebook.
"A lot of guys sign it without really looking at it," he says. "After a while, you don't care. You do your eight, you hit the gate. It's a job. They want you to get more involved, but the job is miserable enough without poking around and peeking at everybody's deepest, darkest secrets."
As Pugh pursued his search for dirty staff, the relationship between the administration and the union quickly deteriorated. Principe posted an off-color limerick on the union website mocking the new warden. He and several other outspoken critics of the new regime soon found their loyalty under attack. "Federal agencies have no patience with First Amendment enthusiasts," he notes.
On August 16, 1999, Principe was getting ready to leave on vacation when a lieutenant summoned him to his office. "He handed me this paperwork saying I was assigned to home duty," he recalls. "No reason. To this day, I've never gotten a reason."
There were no particular duties associated with his new assignment. He merely had to stay at his house, a living, breathing testament to others on the folly of being a renegade. For the next seven months, he sat tight, drawing his pay and wearing the stigma of being "under investigation" like a badge.
Even after he was arrested and thrown in the county jail, the checks kept coming.
The Aryan Brotherhood started out in the early 1960s in the California prison system as a prison gang obsessed with race. It was perhaps a predictable response to the increasing presence of black gangs in Folsom, San Quentin and other state abattoirs. Supposedly, in the early days, you had to be part Irish to join; members sported shamrock tattoos as a sign of undying loyalty to their brothers.
But in time, prosecutors say, the organization's leadership became much more interested in power than race. They developed sophisticated gambling, extortion and dope operations; pimped out male inmates of all persuasions (despite their loud contempt for homosexuality); ordered hits on their own weak links; and forged uneasy truces with black and Hispanic factions. By the late '70s, several veterans of the California group, including Mills, had hit the streets and then moved into the federal prison system on new charges. Although never vast in numbers, the AB was now so far-flung, with hundreds of "associates" eager to align themselves with the group in exchange for protection and status, that it developed two "commissions," consisting of three members each -- one to oversee the California prisons, the other to run business in the federal pens.
For years, few law-enforcement officials paid attention to the AB; as long as their principal victims were other inmates, there was little public outrage over their activities. But the 1983 killing of the two Marion guards, as well as incidents of street violence from paroled members who were dealing drugs and expected to pay "taxes" to the gang, drew increasing scrutiny. In the mid-'80s, the FBI tried to build a racketeering case against the AB, citing the extensive narcotics network in California prisons and the group's apparent efforts to extort Mafia elements inside the walls. "Source information indicates that the AB has a stranglehold on some of the top LCN [La Cosa Nostra] members who are inside the prison system," one report stated, "so now it allows the AB access to the funding of organized crime."
But in 1989, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles declined to prosecute the case, reportedly because of credibility problems with the snitches that the FBI had developed. A scandal had just erupted at the Los Angeles county jail over a "snitch tank" full of informants who'd fabricated testimony in homicide cases in order to get their sentences reduced, and the FBI fretted that some so-called AB defectors might actually be double agents seeking to infiltrate the witness-protection program. "There are many witnesses in the WITSEC program who have testified against members of the AB and now have contracts on their lives," one memo advised.
Over the next decade, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) became the lead agency investigating the AB. A new crop of informants emerged, especially after a war erupted in federal pens between the gang and the DC Blacks in the late 1990s ("Marked for Death," May 25, 2000). In 1998 the probe landed what may have been its biggest fish. An ADX inmate named Kevin Roach, who claimed to be a high-ranking AB "councilman" who'd served directly under federal commissioners Mills and Bingham, expressed an interest in cooperating with authorities.
Roach was placed in H Unit, an isolated area tucked near ADX's central control room. For several months, he was the only occupant of the unit; guards took to calling it the Roach Motel. In 1999 he was joined by five other defectors, including a California state prisoner, Brian Healy, who'd come from Pelican Bay and had been talking to federal authorities for the past two years.
Only a few top administrators and staffers were allowed access to H Unit. Still, it didn't take long for other guards to notice the bags of food from the outside world -- ribs, pizza, burgers from Carl's Jr. -- vanishing into the Roach Motel. Rumors spread that Warden Pugh had assembled a bunch of lowlifes to look at pictures of officers and tell tales about the "dirty" ones.
But investigating staff was only a small part of H Unit's mission. The group was given other inmates' mail and asked to decode the secret messages that AB members were known to conceal in what seemed like innocuous small talk. (One method of sending orders involved a disappearing "ink" made of urine that reappeared when heated.) They made training videos that purported to show how gang members passed notes and drugs, compromised staff and made weapons out of ordinary commissary items. They were debriefed at length on their knowledge of various AB murder plots, even if much of what they knew was hand-me-down prison lore. And they were handed hush-hush files on everything from other AB rollovers to Latin American drug cartels, in the hopes that they could fill in some gaps in pending investigations.
In return for their help, they got perks no ADX inmate could have dreamed possible. Carl's Jr. A television and VCR. A laptop computer -- and occasional, supervised access to the Internet. The ability to move freely throughout the unit. At least one soft-core porn video, smuggled in by one of their chummier handlers. What would ultimately amount to thousands of dollars in cash payments, placed in their commissary accounts. And promises of transfers to less secure prisons or spots in the witness-protection program.
A few months into the operation, a former AB shot-caller named Danny Weeks had a falling-out with Roach and was moved out of H Unit. Weeks began snitching on the snitches. He contacted Westword and declared that the debriefing was a fraud. Roach and another top informant, Eugene Bentley, had exaggerated their role in the AB, he wrote, and the group had compared stories and coached each other on what to tell the grand jury preparing the racketeering indictment. They had made up stories, taking their cues from the files provided to them.
"We would theorize what certain things meant and always embellish everything to make us look good," Weeks wrote. "Kevin would later confide in me that he was playing the biggest game he had ever played, and if he made a wrong move he was through. He told me that he had [a BOP intelligence officer] by the nuts and had told him so."
The game may have included passing on to others the top-secret information that their handlers gave them. Weeks smuggled sensitive data on a DEA investigation out of ADX and into a public court file to show how easily it could be done.
After Weeks went public, Warden Pugh moved quickly to discredit him. He sent out a memo to staff declaring that Weeks had failed a polygraph test. But another H Unit graduate, Brian Healy, would later tell a very similar story to defense investigators about what went on in the unit. "After they've been fed the information," he said, "the informants know what to say."
According to Healy, Pugh had personally brought staff files to H Unit and shown the inmates photos that included the officers' addresses and phone numbers. He would then ask, "Which of these guys are dirty?"
One of the photos was of Joe Principe. Healy had spent months at ADX before moving to H Unit, but Principe had done nothing wrong, as far as he knew. The guard was "certainly no worse" than the chummy intelligence officer whose gonads Roach claimed to have in hand, he added.
Weeks had made accusations about Principe when he first arrived in H Unit, accusations that may have prompted Principe's assignment to home duty. But Weeks would later claim that his fellow defectors had labeled several guards they didn't like as "AB facilitators" in hopes of getting them jammed up.
"I knew that Officer Principe had been placed on home leave, and I asked Kevin the details on that," Weeks wrote. "He told me Principe had been down here working the bubble when he first rolled over and had treated him so bad that he had told [investigators] the guy was hooked up with us. He was going to get indicted with all the AB as a co-conspirator for helping us conduct our business here at ADX.
"I told Kevin that's kinda hard on the guy. He replied, 'Fuck the puke. He's lucky I can't kill him.'"
Home duty was a bit like being locked up, Principe soon realized. Nothing to do, weird thoughts, a deepening estrangement from what passes as normal society. A hint, maybe, of things to come.
His buddies from the union called with messages of solidarity. Hang in there, Joe. They can't get away with this. But as the months dragged on, the calls dried up. So much for the brotherhood of the badge.
His father had just passed away. He was going through a messy divorce and a custody battle over his kids, sitting on a mortgage and wondering how much longer he could keep his non-job. If he was going to be branded an outlaw, he might as well live like one. He wrote poems, hung out in a tattoo shop, rode his Harley.
People who used to work with him thought he was losing it. He carried guns and acted paranoid. According to one source, at a union meeting he put another officer in a headlock -- which might explain why his union pals stopped calling.
His new friends were other people living on the margins. One of them was a bartender named Gino. In March 2000, Gino came to him with a story about being in debt to "dangerous people." Principe loaned him $1,500 and let him borrow his car for a few minutes to go make the payoff. Hours later, no Gino. No car.
"I probably should've let the police handle it, but I thought I was too street-suave for that," Principe would later write to a friend. "I still had my bike and truck to get around, and I wanted to handle it like a stand-up guy should."
Five days later, Gino showed up at Principe's house. He had the car but no cash, just a peace offering: a T-shirt from a Las Vegas casino. Principe blew up. "I slapped him around," he says. Then he told Gino to go get the money he owed him.
Gino told a different story to the police. It was a lurid account of handcuffs, a beating, a haircut lopping off his long hair. An ex-girlfriend came forward with accusations of her own. Suddenly, Principe was facing a barrage of charges: kidnapping, sexual assault, menacing, stalking. Bail was set at a million bucks. The Cañon City paper had him down as some kind of alleged maniac rapist prison guard, with rumored ties to white-supremacy prison gangs -- all of which made him a very popular guy in the county jail.
Principe says the ex-girlfriend ultimately recanted her story. Gino did not.
Principe took the case to trial. He thought he could beat the rap, right up until the time another ADX employee, a martial-arts workout buddy, took the stand and claimed that Principe had bragged of doing exactly what the prosecution said he'd done. Principe insists his friend perjured himself. "I don't know why he did it," he says. "I assume he was in trouble, too. He got a promotion and a transfer shortly after that."
Somebody, Principe figured, wanted him in prison. How did a guy like Joe Principe suddenly get so important?
His lawyers told him that the friend's testimony was damning: He was looking at 32 years. So they cut a deal with the prosecution before the case could be handed to a jury. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping and two counts of menacing. Sentence: eight years.
Officer Principe was no more. Felon Principe was shipped off to the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility. He worked the weight pile, did his own time. In some ways, he made a better convict than a hack. But he was under no illusion about where he was.
"I've seen people in prison look out for each other," he says. "But that falls apart, too. All it takes is one rumor, and a guy can go from being on top of the pile to checking in."
He didn't check in -- not even when he got an engraved invitation. A year into his sentence, he had a visit from Les Smith, an ADX intelligence officer, and Michael Halualani, the ATF agent heading the Aryan Brotherhood investigation. They handed him a copy of the racketeering indictment.
In the dozens of criminal acts described in the document, Principe's name came up in connection with only three obscure incidents. He was charged with having arranged to put Barry Mills and Kevin Roach next to each other during recreation so that they could discuss AB business; on another occasion, he was supposed to have placed Mills next to Eugene Bentley, another H Unit snitch. He was also accused of falsifying a report of a 1998 fight between T.D. Bingham and a black inmate, Leroy Elmore, claiming that Elmore had a weapon and had started the fight.
Principe was stunned. Anybody who knew ADX knew that one guard couldn't move inmates around; it took at least three. Even if Mills ended up on the yard next to Roach or Bentley, it could have been happenstance or because of a request to be put next to a workout partner, one of the small "accommodations" that were sometimes granted at the supermax. It didn't mean Principe knew anything about their conversations -- which, the indictment implied, had something to do with the war against the DC Blacks and a supposed $500,000 contract that mobster John Gotti wanted the AB to carry out against a black inmate who'd beaten him up at Marion. (The contract, if it ever existed, was never carried out -- but that didn't stop the New York newspapers from going wild with the story of Gotti, the AB and Joe Principe, an Italian kid from the Bronx turned "rogue guard.")
The third charge was even more laughable. Principe insists that he filed a righteous report, stating that combatants Bingham and Elmore appeared to go at each other simultaneously. Defense investigators who've seen a videotape of the fight say that it backs up Principe's version and that Elmore had a pair of gloves in his hand that could have been mistaken for a weapon. There's also a strong suggestion in accounts of the incident that administrators arranged for the fight to occur, since only a glaring lapse in security could have placed the pair in a sally port together, along with a member of the Mexican Mafia -- and a SWAT team was standing by, apparently at the ready to break it up.
Yet the government was saying that these incidents made Principe part of the whole racketeering conspiracy; if convicted, he was looking at twenty years to life in prison. "Even if I was truly guilty of putting these guys next to each other intentionally, how could that be a life sentence?" Principe asks. "I don't get it."
After Principe had inspected the indictment, his visitors wasted no time explaining why they'd come to see him. "This is easy," Halualani said. "You're either with the government, or you're with the Aryan Brotherhood. What's it going to be?"
Principe stared at him. "Say that again," he said.
The agent repeated himself.
"You're out of your mind," Principe said. "I got nothing to say to you."
"This is a life sentence, Joe," Smith added. "The AB or the Dirty White Boys are going to get you. We're trying to help you."
Help him? They were trying to flip him. Like they'd flipped Roach and Bentley, the fine pair who'd hung these charges on him.
"I already tried the government," he said. "You let me drown. I'm a convict now."
He declined their offer. Then he headed for the weight pile and had his best workout in a long time.
A month later, the feds took him out of Arkansas Valley and flew him to California. They put him in the special housing unit at Terminal Island. He'd spend most of the next two years in the hole awaiting trial, a life of isolation that would make home duty look like an endless party.
Shortly after he arrived in California, a corrections officer cuffed him and took him to recreation. Principe recognized his escort. He was someone Principe had trained years ago, one of the rookies he'd told not to rely too much on the bars to protect him.
Using the racketeering laws, the government has scored several victories in its war against the Aryan Brotherhood. Numerous AB soldiers have been flipped or convicted on conspiracy charges, and two years ago, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, a prominent AB leader at Pelican Bay, got a life sentence for conspiracy in the 1995 murder of a sheriff's deputy.
But the cases against upper-level AB have tended to be marathon prosecutions, often yielding meager results. Tracing the carnage behind prison walls to its source can be a daunting task, especially when your chief witnesses are convicts with long histories of violence themselves -- and you're asking a jury to believe that they took their orders from someone else who belongs on death row.
"If you take the informants in our case and do a body count, then compare it to the defendants, their body count is way higher," says Dean Steward, Mills's attorney. "One of their witnesses has supposedly killed seven or eight guys."
It took three trials in Kansas to convict AB stalwart Michael "Big Mac" McElhiney of running a heroin ring in the Leavenworth federal pen. In the first trial, a female juror fell in love with the defendant. A guilty verdict in a second trial was reversed on appeal. The third time around, McElhiney caught thirty years on top of the 21-year sentence he was already serving.
Last year's prosecution in Illinois of David Sahakian, alleged to be one of the AB's federal commissioners, was an even greater debacle. Sahakian and two other Marion inmates were charged with murder and conspiracy in the stabbing death of a black inmate, Terry Walker. The trial lasted seven months, cost more than $3 million just for the defense mounted by court-appointed lawyers, and resulted in a hung jury on most of the charges. Sahakian was convicted on a single charge of possession of a homemade knife -- a tough charge to beat, since the shank was found concealed in his rectum.
Interviews by defense attorneys with jurors after the trial indicated they were hung 7-5 in favor of acquittal on the homicide charges, says Steward. "The jurors found the informants -- Kevin Roach and a bunch of others -- to be lying weasels," he says. "They found the Bureau of Prisons personnel who testified to be incompetent and hiding things. They found the prisoner witnesses called by the defense to be charming and truthful. 'Charming and truthful' -- those are their words."
The Los Angeles racketeering case gives the feds another shot at McElhiney, Sahakian and other top AB members. But first they'll have to overcome defense efforts to suppress the snitch testimony arising out of H Unit, which Steward calls "hopelessly tainted." A hearing on the matter is scheduled in June.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner, who's been pursuing the case since the late '90s, declines to comment on the H Unit operation. "That's something that's going to be decided at the hearing," he says. "It's not appropriate for me to say what happened before the witnesses testify. The proof will be in the pudding."
Since Weeks first blew the lid off H Unit five years ago, several other disgruntled informants have told their stories to the defense, accusing the government of reneging on its promises to them. Some claim to have been fed information or offered incentives to lie; others say they've been threatened with being put in general population and labeled a rat if they don't play ball. Some appear to be playing both sides. One told defense investigators he should be considered "a double-edged sword that cuts both ways."
Yet the snitch testimony is essential if Jessner is going to convince a jury that Mills and Bingham, despite being locked down under the tightest conditions the Bureau of Prisons has ever devised, continued to send and receive messages, order murders and settle disputes across the federal prison system. Defense-team veterans such as Terry Rearick, an investigator who's known Mills and Bingham for decades, says the premise has problems.
"You got a bunch of dysfunctional dope fiends, and the government's theory is that they became this well-oiled killing machine," Rearick points outs. "These guys are a bunch of broke-dick convicts. Mills can't tell them what to do. I mean, they get two fifteen-minute phone calls a month at best, all their mail gets copied and read -- and they're running the prison system? Come on."
But if Mills and Bingham are as powerful as the indictment claims, then what does that say about the effectiveness of supermax prisons such as ADX?
"In order for the government to prevail at trial, the Bureau of Prisons is going to have to concede that they were incompetent and screwed up," Steward says. "That's an enormous problem in the prosecution's camp right now. They don't want to admit that they couldn't control the people they were supposed to be controlling."
Among staff at ADX, the case presents other worries. The federal system reinstated the death penalty in 1988, after a 25-year moratorium, but it's never been used as widely as it could be in the AB case. News of the indictment was met with trash talk from some AB loyalists. In many cases, the defendants were already serving time for some of the same crimes for which they were now facing conspiracy charges; Mills, for example, is already doing life for the 1979 murder of inmate Mazloff. Others, like Bingham, are up for parole in a few years. Now the government was making noises about killing them.
The rumor mill went crazy. For every one of ours they execute, the AB types were reportedly saying, we're going to take out two guards.
Principe scarcely slept during his first eight days in the hole. He'd seen hardened cons crack up in places like this. He was a rookie and knew it. How was he going to endure it?
He got busy. He grabbed stacks of paperbacks off the book cart. He read Melville, Tolstoy, Hesse, Emerson, Dumas, Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway. He read Don Quixote, then tackled it again, this time in Spanish.
He studied books on writing and labored over his own letters. "These concrete cages can birth geniuses and madmen, monks and monsters, if strong wills prevail," he wrote.
For exercise, there was just room enough in his cell to do burpees -- a hybrid of jumping jack and push-up, popular among the military and convicts. When he started, he could barely do fifty of them at a time. Before long, he could do 500. When he was taken out to the yard, he was often allowed a recreation cage next to another AB defendant who became his workout partner. The guards who escorted him were basically doing the same thing he was accused of doing at ADX, but no one nailed them with conspiracy charges.
He read through piles of reports, the discovery in his case. There was nothing anywhere to establish that he'd ever been paid to help the AB, that he had benefited in any way from this vast conspiracy.
He meditated. He prayed.
The feds came back to see him every few months. Was he ready to cooperate? Did he want to strike a deal in exchange for a nicer cell? The case kept getting continued, delayed, dragged out.
"For the first year, I was focused," Principe says. "I was intact. Then it started to change."
There are stages a person goes through when suffering sensory deprivation -- "SHU syndrome," as it's known in special housing units. At one point, everything the staff did seemed to annoy Principe. He began to believe they were going out of their way to mess with him. He became angry at the slightest provocation. The walls closed in.
The extraction teams were called. Principe took the pepper spray and shouted defiance. He did his best to wear them out. He was turning into one of the crazies he used to dread dealing with.
It is not a time he wants to talk about now. "You have no idea what it was like," he says. "They break you down to the point where you're ready to make a deal."
He would not become a snitch. He was adamant about that; besides, what did he really know that could interest them? But the prosecutors were eager to deal anyway. They wanted to plead out the lesser charges without exposing too much of their hand in the death-penalty cases. After two years in the hole, Principe was presented with a "global plea agreement," designed to settle the charges against multiple defendants. The catch was they'd all have to sign off on it, or no deal -- a neat way of getting the defendants to pressure each other to get on board.
Assistant U.S Attorney Jessner was handing out good deals, Principe says. He was a regular Monty Hall. "I wanted to go to trial," Principe insists, "but my attorney explained to me that the jury would be listening to Bentley and Roach, and if the jury believed them, I'd be looking at a lot more time. I didn't know what I should do. It was one of the most grueling decisions of my life. I wanted to clear my name, but maybe the wise thing to do was to let it go."
In February he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering. He got fifteen months, to be served concurrent with the state time he was already doing for the assault on Gino. The prosecution wanted to close the hearing to reporters, but Principe insisted on it's being open. He wanted everybody to know that his deal included no pledge of cooperation in other cases. He wasn't a witness for the prosecution or the defense. He was done.
He returned to Colorado to serve his time. The biggest capital case in the nation's history lurched on without him. He concentrated on learning to walk in regular strides again. All that time in the hole and in leg irons had left his calf muscles atrophied, best suited for shuffling half-steps.
He was going to fix that. He was going to do his time standing up, walking the yard like a regular convict.
"The only thing I got going for me is I held my mud through this," he says. "This has been a humongous humble pie -- a whole pie, being force-fed to me from day one -- to go from that side to this side. Humility is, I guess, a good thing."
He looks around him, at the guards, the prisoners, the red line, as if seeing it all for the first time.
"I'm ready for a break," he says.
for related stories visit our "Crime and Punishment" archive.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.